Home 

God — Litterateur


by Bernard DeVoto



                        originally published in The Guardian: A Literary

                        Monthly Published in Philadelphia, Volume I, no.

                        V (March 1925), pp. 188-197.




I.



Whatever fault one may find with the conversation of a United States Senator or the treasurer of a large corporation, one does not usually criticise it on the ground that it lacks a sense of religious values or betrays ignorance of the dogmas of the true church. Modern concepts of statecraft and commerce tend to exclude theology from the discipline of their leaders. Yet there is one populous section of this country where religiosity is so bound up with trade and government that a successful banker or official must of necessity be an ecclesiastic as well.


If Senator Reed Smoot, tariff prodigy, chairman of the Senate finance committee, and tiler to the inner council of the G.O.P. should in a serious mood deliver to a Washington dinner table a message from the Angel Moroni concerning the true meaning of a disputed text in the Old Testament or an admonishment to flee the imminent retribution of the Lord, he would only be exercising a prerogative of his office. As Senator from Utah he is, almost ex-officio, a member of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose duty is to preach the everlasting gospel to "all nations, tongues, and kindred," and a member of the Higher or Melchisedek Priesthood to whom it is given "to have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven -- to have the heavens opened unto them -- to commune with the general assembly of the Church of the firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father and Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant." And if Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of this Church of God should, in a prospectus of any corporation of which he is ex-officio treasurer, mingle the phraseology of Scripture with a summary of the corporation's assets, he could show divine authority for the mixture. As a bishop, his pedigree derives by demonstrable steps from Aaron, and the precedent is apparent in all the works of Aaron's seed.


Nor, in Utah and its environs, would either event occasion surprise. Rather, both would be regarded as normal examples of the working of the Holy Spirit, exhibiting the piety of the individual but in no way singling him out form his fellows. For among the Mormons the function of priest has not been distinguished from that of cowherd, soda dispenser, or garbage man, and the Chautauqua ideal of religion that is work, work that is play, and play that is religion has been achieved for close to a hundred years. 



II.



The contributions of God to American literature have never been adequately surveyed. Altogether the bulk of His writings during the past three centuries on this continent must be enormous. And in Utah at least, the critic who approaches this field will discover, God has long been and continues to be the favorite author. I do not mean the Bible. That, though considered to be of divine inspiration, is believed only "in so far as it is correctly translated," and is read very little, if at all. Nor do I mean the histories of Abraham, Nephi, Jarom, Mosiah, Alma, Ether, Mormon, and other worthies collected in The Book of Mormon, the "Gold Bible" of our grandfathers’ generation, the translation of which by Joseph Smith Jr. is specifically warranted correct by God. These, by reasons of irrelevancy and an almost unreadable style, have become obsolete, and though occasionally mentioned at Conference are unknown to the average Mormon of today. But the direct words of God possess a universal currency among the faithful. They are the only living literature of the Latter Day Saints, and, in spite of a flood of Church propaganda and a system of Church magazines intended to reach all readers from children to patriarchs, they are the only Mormon literature likely to attract the critic.


The book which embodies the words of God has the general appearance of the Book of Common Prayer as furnished to American Episcopal churches, but is a little larger and thicker. It is called The Doctrine and Covenants, and the title page declares that it contains "the revelations given to Joseph Smith, Jun., the Prophet, for the building up of the Kingdom of God in the Last Days." Strictly, it contains also seven lectures on faith by the prophet, which are never read, an account of his martyrdom, and a few scattered revelations to others, including the sole message of God to Brigham Young, which are unimportant. As the favorite book of three quarters of a million Americans, as a work of American literature which has been translated into more foreign languages than Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Last of the Mohicans, and as the most extensive anthology of the words of God ever compiled in America, as indeed a purely American theopathy - it deserves the attention of every patriotic critic.


In this book God speaks directly. There is no secondhand reporting, as in the works of Moses and the Prophets. The function of Joseph Smith is purely that of stenographer taking dictation from the Almighty. The method of dictation, we learn from other sources, differed with the occasion. Sometimes God visited Joseph in a dream, a vision, or a trance. More often, when the need for guidance in practical affairs grew pressing, Joseph retired to his office and shortly thereafter issued again with a revelation, hot from the tripod, directing a recalcitrant Saint to sell his farm or, if his presence was embarrassing, to depart to work the vineyards of the Lord several hundred miles away. On several occasions God even spoke to Joseph at the council board, when the opinion of his Apostles or Seventies was going against him, and he was able to confound them by tossing across the table an incontestable decision from the final authority. Always, however, it is God who speaks, in His own person.


The literary style of The Doctrine and Covenants is an advance over that of The Book of Mormon. The latter was the work of Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon, or of Rigdon in revision of the other, and to both God has plainly a superior terseness and economy of thought and language, if not a more literate English. The point of view adopted and the vocabulary used to express sit are those of the American peasant of 1830, a creature somewhat less civilized than the Georgia cracker of today, a hard-headed zany who has his frontier superstitions by heart and is willing to voice them in imitation of a traveling revivalist. The result is almost incredibly naive. The fears, antipathies, and longings of the backwood-man become God's commandments. Yet, intermingled with addlebrained theology, one finds the business acumen which has ever since commended the book to the Saints. In His own due time God achieved a blend of commerce and religion not unprophetic of future developments on this continent and pragmatically designed to advance His church.



III.


On January 19, 1841, at Nauvoo, Illinois, God directs the establishment of a hostelry. "And now I say unto you, as pertaining to my boarding house which I have commanded you to build for the boarding of strangers, let it be built unto my name and let my name be named upon it. . . Let my servant Joseph and his seed after him have place in that house for ever and ever, saith the Lord. . . and let the name of that house be called Nauvoo house and let it be a resting place for the weary traveler, that he may contemplate the glory of Zion. . . verily I say unto you let my servant George Miller and my servant Lyman Wight form a constitution whereby they may receive stock for the building of that house. And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house." The revelation goes on to direct various individuals, presumably those who doubted the value of the stock, to subscribe the issue, assuring them that it will pay heavy dividends both heavenly and earthly. One of them, William Law -- always a hard man for Joseph to control and afterwards the chief cause of his martyrdom -- is promised as a bonus the keys of the priesthood, and outward signs of heavenly favor. "He shall heal the sick; he shall cast out devils, and shall be delivered from those who would administer to him deadly poison, and what if I will that he should raise the dead, let him not withhold his voice." Wages to the builders are fixed, and after a distribution of priesthoods and proctorships, the revelation ends: "and ye should prepare rooms for all these offices in my house when you build it unto my name, saith the Lord your God. Even so -- Amen."


The Nauvoo house was by no means God's first commercial venture. One feels that God is surer of himself here than at Kirtland, Ohio, ten years earlier where, at his direction, the saints had organized a bank. State regulations impiously intervened, the enterprise was declared wildcat and bankrupt, and the prophet was forced to flee, like several of his biblical prototypes, into the wilderness. He emerged in Missouri, where the faithful, to the number of several thousand followed him, and where God presently condoned the failure. "As you obtain a chance to loan money by hundreds or thousands," God says to the prophet, no doubt with an eye to the indictments, "even until you shall loan enough to deliver from bondage, it is your privilege."


In Missouri, where God turned to real estate promotion, the Saints proved a trifle sceptical. The Kirtland bank having failed, what security had they here? God thereupon rechristened Spring Hill "Adam-Ondi-Ahman," a mysterious title associated with Paradise and with great wealth, and boomed the country thereabout as the site of the Garden of Eden. Furthermore the locality was pronounced the gathering place for the judgment day, the authentic center of the end of the world and the beginning of the millennium.


Thus assured, by divine prospectuses, that real estate values would increase, the Saints plunged. God, as always, directed the investments -- with, one concedes, sublime indifference to the expulsion of the faithful to Nauvoo, only a few years in the future. "It must needs be necessary that ye save all the money that you can, and that ye obtain all that ye can in righteousness, that in time ye may be enabled to purchase land for the inheritance, even the city." "And again verily I say unto you, let my servant Sidney Gilbert establish a store, that he may sell goods without fraud, that he may obtain money to buy lands for the good of the Saints." "I say unto you, that my servant Isaac Morley may not counsel wrongfully to your hurt, I give commandment that his farm should be sold." "Purchase all the lands by money which can be purchase in Jackson County, and the counties round about, and leave the residue in my hand."


Waldo Frank, in a moment of rhapsody, has pronounced the Mormon Church an attempt to escape from the negation of frontier religion into dynamic joy. Considering that the frontier churches were given to protracted meetings, revivals, mourner's benches, exhortations, the jumps, agonized rollings of the convicted, and exultant leaps by the converted, it is difficult to see just wherein they lacked the emotional ecstasy which Mr. Frank believes the Mormons to have sought. If indeed they did seek it, they sought in vain. Ecstasy, the joy of the expanded soul is nowhere present in The Doctrine and Covenants. God neither promises nor delivers consuming emotions. He is content to promise a very literal inheritance of the earth and to furnish detailed directions for achieving it. "For in my own due time will I come upon the earth in judgment, and my people shall be redeemed and shall reign with me upon the earth" -- this is the extent of the spiritual hope of the people, and wherever it appears in the words of God it is accompanied by regulations for the stocking of his granaries.


The only escape discernible in the book is an occasional attempt to redeem the colorlessness of names. The town of Kirtland becomes, by divine ordinance, Shinehah; New York City, Cainhannoch. Joseph Smith is variously Enoch, Gazelam, and Baurak Ale; Sidney Rigdon, Pelagoram, and his tannery "the lot of Tahhanes." One can understand the satisfaction of a quid-chewing, illiterate bishop on being informed that though he be plain John Johnson on earth, his name will resound through celestial glories as Zombre, and that he will greet his friend Frederick G. Williams through all eternity with the blessed name of Shederlaomach. "And let my servants Shederlaomach and Olihah (Oliver Cowdery) have the Laneshine-house (printing office) and all things that pertain to it." The parentheses are always present in the text. But this resounding and perhaps wistful nomenclature was only a brief whim of the deity's sometimes led to ambiguity, and endured for only a few pages.


No, the typical Saint of the eighteen-thirties and forties was an ignorant and unimaginative lout, of an active bigotry and superstition, unable to understand a world larger than his parish and his acquaintances. The literary genius of God is best seen in that He adapts His message exactly to this type of mind, utilizing its fears and hopes and adopting its Weltanschauung.


"Cease to be unclean; cease to sleep longer than is needful," God says at Kirtland, immediately after discussing Michael and the Lamb of God, "retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early that ye may be invigorated." "Strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies,: God adds a few pages later, at the same time directing all beasts of the fields to abandon carnivorousness. "And on the first and second lots to the north shall my servants Reynolds Cahoon and Jared Carter receive an inheritance. These two houses are not to be built until I give you a commandment concerning them."


Always the touch is personal. God speaks to the individual saint, who will thereby have a greater confidence in the message. "Verily thus saith the Lord unto my servant William Marks and also unto my servant N. K. Whitney, let them settle up their business speedily." "Let my servant Zombre (John Johnson) have the house which he lives." "Let my servant Lyman Wight beware, for Satan desireth to sift him as chaff."


The personal message becomes poignant when one of the Saints has offended. Oliver Cowdery, the scribe to whom Smith dictated his translation of the Book of Mormon, has been offering revelations of his own. God addresses him through Smith, "Verily, verily I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph." Cowdery, thus rebuked, is further directed to reason with another false prophet: "And thou shalt take thy brother Hiram Page and tell him that those things which he has written from that stone (evidently an unholy imitation of Urim and Thummim, the stones which enabled Smith to translate all languages) are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him."


The famous revelation on polygamy contains an exquisite reprimand of Emma Smith, the legal wife of the prophet. "And let mine handmaid Emma Smith, receive all those (wives) that have been given unto my servant Joseph. . . for I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice. . . and I command mine handmaid to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph. . . but if she will not abide this commandment then shall my servant Joseph do all the things as he hath said, and I will bless him, and multiply him and given unto him an hundred fold of houses and lands, wives and children..." One gets a picture of the sorrows of a prophet of God laboring in spite of wifely jealousy and impediments to do God's will by bringing some half-dozen plural wives into the house.


But the most touching direction in the book is that given to William E. M'Lellin and Samuel H. Smith. Both, seemingly have wavered in their faith, repented, and received forgiveness. They are now about to go forth as missionaries, spreading the true religion. They are told to be faithful and patient, to heal the sick and succor the sorrowing, to abide affliction and to remain till God summons them. The text does not make clear which one is addressed in the peroration; but, says God, dismissing them in all magnanimity: "Seek not to be cumbered. Forsake all unrighteousness, commit not adultery, a temptation with which thou hast been troubled. Thus saith the Lord your God, your Redeemer. Amen."




IV.


Such material as the foregoing does not, of course, exhaust the book. Doctrinal matters receive the same attention, and here again God shows himself thoroughly of the period. One wonders how far the imaginative and intellectual squalor of the age is responsible for the gifts with which God promises to endow the Saints. They are to cast out devils, to heal the sick, to speak in tongues and interpret them. They are to be immune from the poison of enemies and serpents, from pestilence and plague. They are to annihilate their persecutors and to inherit the earth — the earth conceived as a fertile farm whereon man and beast alike dwell in leisure and reproduction of their kind.


They are to go, after death, to one of three glories, the terrestrial, the telestial, and the celestial, which are like the stars, the moon, and the sun in magnitude. There they are to be either ministering angels -- the fate of the least fortunate, those who have not entered the covenant of eternal marriage -- or patriarchal heads of families. This last is the highest reach of God's -- of the Mormon -- vision, a state of perpetual connubiality, where the Saint shall rule over his house and over quantities of plural wives, strong as plowhorses and fecund as rabbits, who shall surround him with illimitable offspring.


Our literary critic will no doubt find this eschatology significant. Nowhere in God's book is there a hint of reflection, of meditation, the disregard of time and circumstance once associated with godliness. Still less is there any softness or languor, any exaltation, any beauty. Most significant of all, this lack of beauty. The critic, marking it, will remember that for three quarters of a century the Mormons have lived among mountains as beautiful as any on earth and have produced millionaires in plenty but not one artist. Their churches have all the grace and distinction of the railway station at Gopher Prairie. The only sculptor born among them escaped into the possibility of achievement by apostatizing, and the works of their painters hang fitly in their meeting houses and the lobbies of their banks. Poets there have been none except the anonymous authors of hymns unspeakably bad, and the author of an epic which is read in Sunday schools with the utmost solemnity. Only one Saint has essayed fiction. His masterpiece deals with the experience of two Mormon souls united in love on this earth and translated to the ultimate glory where for many chapters they are made perfect and talk with God.


God, in The Doctrine and Covenants, is too thoroughly occupied with founding hotels to deal with intelligence and beauty. Rightly so -- for his audience demanded such literature. If there was leisure from that occupation, then the audience would permit a few rules for their guidance amid evil spirits or for putting other sects in their place. God provides such reading. He gives directions for the holy life. He explains visions and dreams. He foretells calamities and the end of the world. He provides charms and incantations. He gives directions for solving the deceits of the devil and even provides a means for unmasking his messengers. (The last is simple and serviceable. If a supernatural messenger appears, hold out your hand. If he is an angel, having no flesh and being unwilling to deceive, he will not extend his in return. If he is of the devil he will hold out his hand, whereupon you can readily perceive that it is spiritual, not material.)


Above all, God insists on the superiority of the Saints. On the frontier almost the only social activity was the disputation of textual and doctrinal matters. All these God settled definitely in favor of the Saints. The Mormon doctrines of baptism, episcopacy, sacraments, creation, and last days are ratified endlessly. Always the salvation of God's people is reiterated, and unutterable dooms are predicted for the opponents of the true Church. All heretic sects -- chief among them, one gathers, were the Disciples, the Methodists, and the Catholics -- are assailed and vilified. Mormon supremacy is asserted till one understands the smugness of the contemporary Mormon. It is a smugness immediately apparent to one who visits Utah today, an infrangible self-righteousness, a bucolic megalomania founded on the authority of God.


Not infrequently excessive zeal leads God into contradictions. For instance, in March 1831 he condemns a church for forbidding the use of meat and for denying marriage to its priests -- asserting that monogamy is a sacred institution. Three years later appears the Word of Wisdom, mentioned above, which forbids meat not only to men but even to carnivores. And in 1843 God reveals the holy sacrament of polygamy which, though, long out of active practice, remains the only distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism in the public mind.


Such is God, literary artist. Such is the book which represents a culture that was almost universal on the frontier twenty years before the Civil War. And, if literature is something that comes home to men's bosoms and business, the critic will hesitate before recording his judgment. Because it has come close home to their business, the Mormons have accorded God's literature a popularity far surpassing that of the most popular novelists. God, in short, is a good business man; he is therefore a successful artist.


The critic will waive the question whether such destinies are not the common lot of American religions, when successful. He will consider merely its bearing on American literature. It is evident that the Mormons are not a singular community. They oversubscribed their quotas in the Liberty Loans. Kiwanis clubs multiply over their land. The Drama League is among them. The per capita ownership of Fords is high. They are part and parcel of the American scene -- typical Americans in origin, in history, and it appears in literary judgment. One does not deny that Zane Grey and Edgar Guest have a large circulation among them. One merely notes that God's circulation is considerably greater.


Why should it not be so? Following the principles laid down in God's book they have developed prosperity from a poverty as great as their intellectual squalor, and this in face of persecution, exile, and even confiscation. God, in effect, has made good. There is wealth in plenty in Utah, and a material culture as modern as any in the nation. All this they have achieved by reading God's book and acting on it, by following God as few other artists have ever been followed. The Doctrine and Covenants has interpenetrated every part of their lives, business methods with their worship and metaphysics with their trade.


That is why any Saint today will stop in the act of selling you a gallon of gasoline or cutting your hair to discuss the fact that God has "body, parts, and passions," and is by actual sexual conjugation the father of mankind. That is why your bell-boy is likely to stay a moment after receiving his tip to warn you of the wrath to come or to set you right about the Sermon on the Mount. Your banker will mingle the lost tribes with his caution against overdrafts. And if the Honorable Reed Smoot has never lightened a caucus by recounting the events of Christ's visit to this continent after the Crucifixion, it is not because he lacked power or authority. For, if he is given god health, and conceivably before his present term as Senator expires, he will be President of his church. As such, he will be officially Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, charged with the duty of receiving the oracles of the Church, of making known the private opinions of Almighty God on all subjects, and of standing as the actual deputy of God to several hundred thousand people. A spectacle likely to afford some amusement to the ribald and certain to cast one national political party in a role it has never had before in all its history.


Home